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Leonid meteor shower could be one of the best ever; NASA team to watch and record it from Apache Point

The Leonid meteor shower in mid-November promises to be a spectacular display of "shooting stars" -- a thousand or more per hour at the shower's peak early on Nov. 18 -- and New Mexico offers a great vantage point for watching the show, astronomers say.

In fact, a NASA team of scientists will travel to Apache Point Observatory in southern New Mexico to videotape the meteor activity. The data they collect will help them predict future meteor storms so spacecraft operators can take precautions when necessary.

The Leonid meteor shower occurs every November, but this year's event is expected to be much more intense than usual, said New Mexico State University astronomy Professor Kurt S.J. Anderson, site director of Apache Point Observatory.

"Normally in a decent meteor shower you might get dozens of meteors per hour," Anderson said. "In a really good one, you might get hundreds. The prediction for this year's Leonid shower is a thousand to two thousand per hour at the peak."

The viewing should be good late Saturday night, Nov. 17, and into the early morning hours of Sunday, Nov. 18, with the peak in shower activity expected about 3 a.m. Mountain time Sunday. No special equipment is needed to enjoy the show, Anderson said.

"Find yourself a nice dark place," he said. "Consider going out in the countryside if there are bright city lights where you live. Put on a jacket if it's chilly, and just lean back and watch the sky."

Look toward the east. The meteors are called the Leonids because they seem to radiate from the constellation Leo (the lion). The stars that form Leo's mane are grouped in a sickle shape, like a reversed question mark.

The meteor shower occurs each year as Earth passes through a trail of debris left behind by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which makes an elliptical trip around the sun every 33 years. Each time the comet passes closest to the sun, it sheds more debris, and Earth will be passing though an especially thick patch of debris this year, Anderson said.

Making conditions even more favorable will be the lack of competing light from the moon. The crescent moon will have set by the time the meteor activity reaches its peak.

Commonly known as "shooting stars," the meteors actually are small particles that glow as they strike Earth's atmosphere. The largest and brightest ones in the shower may only be the size of a grain of sand or perhaps a pea, Anderson said.

People watching from areas with nearby lights might not be able to see the fainter meteors, but most backyard viewers should see a good show nevertheless, he said.

Still, a dark sky is a definite advantage, and a team of scientists headed by Robert Suggs of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center will observe the meteor shower from a spot known for its clear, dark skies -- Apache Point Observatory in the Sacramento Mountains.

"We knew the altitude, clear weather and dark skies of APO would allow us to see faint meteors," said Suggs, who earned his doctorate in astronomy at New Mexico State University and now leads the Space Environments Team at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. "Knowing the relative distribution of faint versus bright meteors is important to our meteor stream modeling efforts."

The group, which is expected to include two scientists from the University of Western Ontario as well as Suggs and another NASA scientist, will use several image-intensified video cameras, similar to night vision systems, to record meteor activity on the nights of Nov. 16/17 and Nov. 17/18. The observatory is not open to the public at night.

"We need the stream models so we can predict future meteor storms and let spacecraft operators know when they are expected and how intense they will be," Suggs said. "The spacecraft operators need to know this so they can take precautions to protect their spacecraft."

Suggs' team provides forecasts to the International Space Station, the space shuttle program, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and other NASA science spacecraft, as well as Department of Defense and commercial satellite operators.

Apache Point, operated by New Mexico State University for a consortium of research institutions, is one of six sites chosen by NASA for monitoring the 2001 Leonid meteor shower, including Guam, Hawaii and Mongolia's Gobi Desert.